Staying the course, closing the course, saving the course
Tracking down a new boss
The Racecourse Association is having to find a new chief executive. Nothing too surprising in that, except it’s not something they’ve had to do for nearly 20 years.
Unlike other racing bodies, who seem to lose senior executives at quite regular intervals and sometimes before their term of office has expired, the Racecourse Association has had Stephen Atkin (pictured) at the helm for 18 years.
When you consider what has happened since 2000 in the world of racing, often with the sport’s stakeholders at each other’s throats, it’s remarkable that he’s lasted as long as he has.
One of his biggest achievements was to play a key role in the formation of racing’s tripartite agreement between the racecourses, the BHA and the Horseman’s Group.
It’s not always been plain sailing, but at least the three bodies primarily pull in the same direction.
The irony is that one of the biggest schisms at the moment is between racecourse groups over media rights with which Atkin’s successor will have to deal.
Meanwhile, we should acknowledge what Stephen Arkin has achieved and that we’re in a better place now than when he first headed-up the racecourse body.
Curragh should have looked at the bigger picture
Not unnaturally, there were a lot of racegoers at the Curragh just over a week ago who were unhappy that the track’s big screen didn’t show the Jessica Harrington trained Alpha Centauri winning her fourth Group 1 in the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville.
It now transpires that this was not an oversight, but a conscious decision because the positioning of the big screen nearby the parade ring and pre-parade ring was upsetting to the horses.
The Curragh is in its second year of redevelopment and there is currently only the one big screen at the course – more will no doubt follow when the work is completed.
But meanwhile, it is another example that continuing to race at the County Kildare track has left racegoers short-changed. As the work has progressed, facilities have got better but are still far short of what one should expect when watching many of Ireland’s top races.
Some fixtures have been transferred to other courses, but contests such as the Irish Derby have remained, to be run in front of much reduced crowds.
Right from the start, this was the wrong decision.
Before the banking crisis, when the Curragh was first going to be redeveloped, albeit on a grander scale, the course was going to close and big races, such as the Derby, were destined to be run at Leopardstown.
The benefit was that big races could be watched by big crowds and, given Leopardstown’s close proximity to Dublin, might even have attracted new racegoers.
Instead, the Derby, has played out to vastly reduced numbers and some of those who went to the Curragh have vowed never to return given the poor facilities. Such situations run the risk of the event disconnecting with its audience.
No doubt the redeveloped Curragh will be a fitting venue when once fully operational but, unlike Longchamp which shut down during its major overhaul, racing should not have been run there whilst it was a building site.
Financial health checks for tracks needed
It wasn’t altogether a big surprise that Towcester racecourse called in the administrates after poor trading conditions finally forced the track’s management’s hand. Its finances had always given the impression of being fragile, with land sold, prime fixtures auctioned off and loans sought.
Now, the BHA is working with the administrators with regard to the track’s licence and the three 2018 horse racing fixtures still to be run. With heavy redundancies already incurred, it seems probable that the meetings will be transferred elsewhere.
But given the shaky financial condition, shouldn’t it be part of the BHA’s remit, when allowing tracks their licences, to carry out checks of the viability of small, independent racecourses to ensure they are fit to continue to stage racing.
It is well known that a number of tracks operate on very small margins, which is fine if that’s what the owners are content with, but it doesn’t take much to slip into the red and some proactive involvement in terms of advice, drafted in expertise and perhaps secured interest-free loans is better than waiting for the administrators to move in.